Last March, Gov. Tim Walz declared a peacetime state of emergency, issuing waivers to health care providers that temporarily granted them increased flexibility in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. Across Minnesota, standard regulations for treatment location, telehealth services, and administrative activities were relaxed.

The state of emergency is set to expire on April 14. It is not known whether Walz will extend it beyond that date.

Cynthia Bennett, the director of Aitkin County Health and Human Services, said that a number of the waivers, such as more flexibility in terms of remote work, should stay in place.

“We had to make all these adjustments because we were not supposed to be face-to-face and we needed to comply with the governor’s executive orders for social distancing,” she said. “And it worked out well, so we would like to continue that, because we found cost savings for taxpayers.”

Bennett gave the following example: “Let’s say we have an in individual that we’re responsible for and they live in Minneapolis and we have to have a face-to-face meeting. Now we have someone driving to Minneapolis to meet with this person face-to-face. That’s a whole day, a whole day of windshield time. And we’re paying a person to do this.” The flexibility of remote work has “freed up more time so that we could actually do more,” Bennett said. “It’s better for consumers. It’s better for the budget. It’s been a win-win.”

There have also been drawbacks to doing so much remotely. “We have elderly people here,” Bennett said. “Some of them don’t necessarily like the newer technologies, or they don’t know how to use them. That has been a challenge.”

Bennett said that remote health care and other appointments should be “in addition to,” not a replacement to face-to-face meetings.

DHS BILLING ERRORS

In 2014, the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) underbilled counties across the state for services provided to individuals in mental health and substance abuse residential treatment facilities.

The miscalculation was for $23 million in three major errors.

Five years later, DHS notified the counties that they would have to pay back their share. The bill for Aitkin County was about $22,500. More populated counties like Hennepin, Anoka, and Ramsey owe hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Local officials continue to fight the battle with the state.

“We should not be held accountable for billing errors that they made years ago,” said Bennett. “If a grocery store undercharges you for a can of soup, they don’t come back three years later and say, ‘We put the wrong price tag on it – you need to pay’.”

In late 2019, the Association of Minnesota Counties held a conference during which Walz said that the counties should be not be held responsible for the DHS’s mistake. There are presently several bills in committees on the floor of the legislature.   

No matter the outcome, taxpayers will have to foot the bill, either at the state or county level.

“The most favorable outcome is that counties don’t have to pay it, because that would come directly out of our local monies,” Bennett said. “We just don’t want it coming out of the county budget.”

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